bajada

Last week in a blog post about rocks on the coast of Cornwall I came across the word bajada. I’d never seen it used in English, so I checked and found that sure enough, some English dictionaries do include it. For example, dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary, defines the term as ‘an alluvial plain formed at the base of a mountain by the coalescing of several alluvial fans.’ That dictionary even gives a good etymology: “1865-70, Americanism; < Spanish: slope, swoop, orig. feminine past participle of bajar to descend < Vulgar Latin *bassiāre, derivative of Late Latin bassus short, low. The adjective bassus led not only to Spanish bajo but also, via Old French, to English base in the senses ‘of low morals; of low quality.’ In addition, Late Latin bassus is the source of the English bass that means ‘having a low pitch or deep tone.’ A conjecture basing the English and Spanish noun base ‘the lowest part’ on the same Late Latin bassus turns out to be false; that base goes back to Greek basis.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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Regale

It would be easy to assume that the English verb regale is related to the one-letter-shorter adjective regal, so that regale could be taken to mean ‘to treat like a king.’ That’s not the case, however. English acquired regale, as Spanish apparently did regalar ‘to give as a gift,’ from French régaler, which came from the Old French noun regal that meant ‘feast’ and that was based on the verb galer ‘to make merry.’ From the Old French noun gale ‘rejoicing, merrymaking’ came Spanish and English (and Italian) gala.

The present participle of Old French galer, galant, is the source of galante/gallant. Going farther back, we find that the verb galer was of Germanic origin, a descendant of the Indo-European root *wel- that meant ‘to wish, to will.’ Naturally I wish you’re happy to have been regaled with these latest facts from the gallant world of etymology.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Putting up with throwing down the etymological gauntlet

A gauntlet (also spelled gantlet) is literally ‘a small glove,’ though the sense in English was originally (and still historically) ‘a part of a suit of armor that covers the forearm.’ In modern English a gauntlet can be any sort of ‘protective glove.’ English took the word from Old French gantelet, a diminutive of gant. That noun, along with the synonymous Spanish guante, ultimately traces back to a Frankish original presumed to have been *want. We should mention that Spanish also borrowed from French the guantelete that designates part of a suit of armor. We should point out in addition that the English gauntlet that appears in the phrase run the gauntlet is an unrelated word.

My guess is that even native Spanish speakers probably don’t connect guante with the aguantar that means ‘to put up with, to bear,’ yet there is a connection. Spanish borrowed aguantar from Italian agguantare, a verb coined to express the notion of grabbing on to something while wearing gloves for protection. The semantics then shifted metaphorically through ‘get a hold of’ and ‘deal with’ to the current senses of ‘bear, put up with.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Rancho

I drove past a lot of ranches on a recent trip that took me as far north as Wyoming. With that in mind, here’s an updated version of a post from four years ago.

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Allá en el rancho grande,
allá donde vivía,
había una rancherita
que alegre me decía,
que alegre me decía:
“Te voy a hacer tus calzones
como los que usan los rancheros.
Los comienzo de lana
y los acabo de cuero.”

(Out there on the big ranch,
out there where I was living,
there was a little rancher gal
who used to say to me cheerfully,
who used to say to me cheerfully:
“I’m going to turn your shorts [or pants]
into the kind that the rancher men wear.
I’ll start them out in wool
and finish them up in leather.”)

El rancho, los rancheros, la rancherita: we can picture the romantic scene described in that popular song, and what could be more quintessentially Spanish or Mexican? But there’s a surprise in store allá en el rancho: in terms of word origins, rancho should conjure up images of quiche rather than quesadillas, of pâté and not paella, of tartelettes rather than tortillas or tacos. Mais oui, Spanish rancho comes from French! And, à vrai dire, to tell the truth, the word actually traces even farther back, to Germanic. From Frankish, a Germanic language that gave France its name, Old French had borrowed ranc, a noun that meant ‘line, row.’ Old French ranc (which passed into English to join its native relative ring by becoming rank) led to the modern French verb ranger, whose meaning is clear from the borrowed English verb arrange. The French reflexive verb se ranger took on the sense, with respect to troops, ‘to arrange themselves on a campground’ and more generally ‘to set up camp.’ Spanish carried that reflexive French verb over as ranchearse, and the derived noun rancho came to mean ‘an encampment.’ Spanish speakers in the New World eventually extended the meaning to what we now think of as a rancho/ranch. English originally used the Spanish form rancho, but by the early part of the 20th century the Anglicized ranch won out.

We began with the first part of a song in Spanish, so let’s give equal time to English and conclude with the refrain of another song:

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Note that English range, borrowed from French, is etymologically the same as Spanish rancho, though the meanings of the two words, like the buffalo that once inhabited the plains, have roamed.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

entender

Anyone who has studied French and Spanish soon comes to learn that entendre and entender are faux amis (amigos falsos/false friends). The two verbs are etymologically the same, yet the primary French sense is ‘to hear’ while the primary Spanish sense is ‘to understand.’ Let’s go back to Latin to see how the words developed. The main element was Latin tendere, the source of Spanish tender and English tend. Also from that root, by the way, is tienda/tent, in which some sort of material is stretched out over a rigid frame. That makes sense, you see, because Latin tendere had as its basic meanings ‘to stretch, stretch out, distend, extend.’ Notice that those last two English definitions likewise come from compounds of tendere.

Yet another Latin compound was intendere, where the prefix in meant not its usual ‘in’ but rather ‘to’ or towards.’ Definitions of intendere in Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary include ‘to stretch out, stretch forth, extend; to strain towards; to turn towards, direct towards.’ In particular, the phrase intendere animum meant ‘to direct one’s thoughts or attention to.’ Often the purpose of directing one’s thoughts or attention to something is to understand it, and so Spanish entender took on the meaning ‘to understand.’ French entendre also once had the sense ‘to understand,’ but eventually a particular way of directing one’s attention came to dominate the verb’s meaning, namely to pay attention by listening. That semantic drift was aided by the fact that French ouïr, the cognate of Spanish oír ‘to hear,’ gradually fell out of use, and entendre filled the gap.

Even so, in some French expressions the verb entendre retains the sense ‘understand.’ For example, a malentendu is ‘a misunderstanding.’ Joan Corominas points out that in the 1800s Spanish copied malentendido from the French noun, and he notes that the word was originally looked down on as a Gallicism. English did its own related borrowing from French with double entendre, which is ‘a phrase that can be understood in two ways, one of them often being risqué.’

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

samphire

In learning about the native plant that botanists categorize as Sarcocornia (previously Salicornia) pacifica recently, I noticed that a couple of its vernacular names are Pacific swampfire and Pacific samphire. The plant grows in saline marshes, so that accounted for the “swamp.” Some parts of the plant turn reddish, so I figured that color metaphorically became the “fire.” As I imagined it, samphire would have arisen as a faster, simpler pronunciation of swampfire.

So much for hypotheses: once I investigated, I found I had things backwards, because swampfire arose as a folk-etymological recasting of the opaque samphire. I’d gotten it partly right, though, because samphire did come about as a phonetically recast English version of the French name Saint Pierre. The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the name, which originally applied to a Eurasian plant (hence the qualifier Pacific swampfire), came “from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).”

The connections to Spanish, of course, are that French saint is Spanish santo (both from Latin sanctus ‘holy’), and French pierre is Spanish piedra (both from Latin petra, taken from Greek petrā ‘cliff, rock’). Relatives of the former include santificar/sanctify and santurrón/sanctimonious. Relatives of the latter include petrificar/petrify and petróleo/petroleum (literally ‘rock oil’).

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Two haves that look like have-nots

Just about everyone recognizes the first part of the English word malady. It comes from Latin male, which meant the same as its Spanish descendant mal ‘badly.’ The second part of malady, which English took from Old French, remains opaque. If we trace the compound back to Latin, we find it began as the two-word phrase male habitus ‘badly held,’ whose second element is the past participle of habēre, the ancestor of Spanish haber ‘to have.’

In the case of the English adjective able, but the loss of an initial h- in Old French, which is where English acquired the word, ended up concealing the word’s origin in Latin habilis, whose meanings were ‘that may be easily handled or managed, manageable, suitable, fit, proper, apt, expert, light, nimble, swift.’ The ‘handled’ sense shows that the Romans created habilis from habēre ‘to have, hold, possess, handle.’ In another instance of Seeing Isn’t Believing, the Latin adjective suffix -abilis is unrelated.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

nuestro

Last time, with heavy doses of nosism, I wrote about nos, which in Latin meant ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and in Spanish means ‘us’ and ‘to us.’ The corresponding Latin adjective was noster ‘our,’ with stem nostr-, which developed into Spanish nuestro. Beginning in the Renaissance, pharmacists sometimes placed the neuter Latin nostrum ‘ours’ on bottles of medicine, as if to say “This is our home remedy.” That’s the origin of nostrum as an English term for ‘a medicine whose ingredients are kept secret,’ and then more generally for ‘any sort of product or scheme that is less than reputable.’ The French cognate of Spanish nuestro is notre, which lost its s by the same process that has led some modern varieties of Spanish to turn nuestro into nuehtro and then nuetro. We recognize French Notre Dame ‘Our Lady’ as the name of a famous Gothic cathedral in Paris and also of a Catholic university in Indiana.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the underlying Indo-European root was *nes-, whose suffixed adjectival form *ns-ero‑ gave rise not only to Latin noster but also to Germanic *unsara‑. With the loss of the -n-, that became Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre, the ancestor of our our (for those of us who are native English speakers).

©2017 Steven Schwartzman

Make good grades and you’ll graduate with a degree

The Spanish noun grado has various meanings, including those that can be translated into English with the related words grade and the French-derived degree. All go back to Latin gradus, a noun that meant ‘step, pace, gait, walk,’ from the verb gradī ‘to step, walk, go, advance.’ Other words we’ve borrowed from that source are the ingrediente/ingredient that ‘goes into’ a recipe; the retrógrado/retrograde that applies to something ‘moving backward’; the graduar/graduate which one does upon taking all the steps required to complete a course of study, typically in a process described as gradual.

One other related word is the temperature scale named centígrado/centigrade for the separation of a hundred grados/degrees between the freezing and boiling points of water. Also known as the Celsius scale, it stands in contrast to the Fahrenheit scale still predominantly used in the retrograde United States. And with respect to that, let me point out a curiosity that I discovered a couple of years ago, namely that in two instances a temperature in one system can be converted to its counterpart in the other (rounded to the nearest whole degree) merely by switching the digits:

16°C = 61°F and 28°C = 82°F.

Armed with that precious knowledge, you can now graduate to being the life of the party.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

mitón

In Spanish a mitón is ‘a type of glove that leaves the extremities of the fingers exposed.’ Gloves of that sort are helpful for people who want some protection from the elements but who need to maintain the dexterity that fingertips provide. (One sort of wearer that comes to mind is a nature photographer in winter.)

The fact that a mitón is a kind of glove makes an English speaker think of the word mitten, even if a mitten fully covers a hand. Might there nevertheless be a connection between the two words? It turns out that Spanish took its word straight from French miton (French stresses an isolated word on its last syllable, by the way), so we have turn Gallic for a bit. French miton was based on the Old French mite that meant ‘glove’ and that generated, with a different suffix, the mitaine that means the same as Spanish mitón. English borrowed mitaine as mitten, whose sense shifted to that of a glove that still dealt with different parts of the hand in distinct ways, but now with the distinction being between the thumb and the other four fingers collectively.

Many etymologists assume that the French mite which by itself and through its derivatives referred to gloves is the same mite that French-speaking children use as an alternate name for a cat, the idea being that a glove or mitten is as soft as a cat’s fur.

English mitt, by the way, arose as a shortened form of mitten.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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